When it became clear that the threat of COVID-19, or novel Coronavirus, would mean a major disruption in daily operations, the Qualifacts IT teams were ready. Even so, the best-laid emergency plans can be a struggle to implement when you’re shortening timelines from weeks, even months, to a few days, says Chad Strange, Qualifacts Director of Information Security.
“We learned that we could do a lot of work in a very short time, and that’s because we were very deliberate about prioritizing, and about transparency,” Chad says. “We drew up a plan, created committees for each segment and kept everyone in the loop so they knew what was coming.”
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Network enhancements was top priority
First up was enhancing the company’s virtual private network, or VPN. The system in place was working effectively, but was not robust enough to support the workload of an entirely remote workforce. A solution was identified and, over the course of a long weekend, put into place.
“We upped our capabilities by 300 percent as far as concurrent users, and even at our peak usage now we are well below capacity,” Chad says. “We were able to make that happen very quickly — within four days. It was beneficial to the business not only in terms of ensuring that everyone could have access, it also has been a positive in terms of increased performance.”
Phone systems also came under scrutiny
A remote operation also meant that many departments that were reliant on desktop phone models would need a mobile solution. Once again, the team met to explore solutions, identified a vendor and moved quickly on implementation — once again, in four days.
“This is the kind of project that can normally take months from planning to execution, and we simply didn’t have that kind of time,” Chad says. “Our overall phone use varies, but we have some departments, such as customer support, who need to have immediate access to a line from their first day of working from home. We also wanted a solution that we could transition to seamlessly for customers: they would call the same number they always did, with no noticeable change in service.”
The new softphone system accomplishes those goals, and also has the added benefit of being completely portable.
Lessons learned will support operational growth
These two major initiatives were done in tandem with several others, such as pre-ordering hardware components ahead of need so as to head off any supply-chain issues. Throughout the process, a series of daily meetings and employee updates allowed everyone in the company to feel engaged and supported.
“We had to go so quickly, and it was great to learn that we could do so successfully,” Chad says. “We exceeded our own expectations. We also learned that having employee awareness, and buy-in, was crucial. While we were working with vendors on upgrades or entirely new systems, we also were communicating internally all that was going on, and how people would be affected.”
For the phone system, that also meant setting up some training so that all employees would be comfortable with its use once they were remote. These proactive communications and training sessions allowed the IT team to get a sense of the employees’ overall adaptation of new processes and systems, Chad says.
“Different workflows have different levels of complexity, and that meant answering a lot of questions,” he explains. “Some people just needed some tips on the new phone system and adapted to it very quickly. Others needed more insights into the new VPN, and so we worked with them so they understood what was changing, and how they might be affected if at all.”
All employees were plugged into Qualifacts’ IT-support vendor for troubleshooting, so their equipment could be managed and maintained. Even so, there are always surprises, and that’s meant creative thinking on the fly.
“We had one employee need a replacement battery for their laptop, while another needed a new monitor,” Chad says. “And even though we are deemed an essential company, we opted to close our office fully. So we just ordered some new ones from Amazon and had them shipped, which worked out fine.”
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An expanded position and best practice reinforcement of security in the wild
Security is a basic tenet of what we do; the work-from-home only increases that focus. We train and equip our offices, equipment and employees with the best protection available for digital and physical security. When moving an entire business outside of the office, there are additional elements that must be considered and reinforced with systems and staff.
“As the world is moving to a work-from-home model, as in any time of crisis, there are those that would take advantage,” Chad says. “We want our team to be on guard, but not on edge about security and working from home.”